By Bonita Barth
Precious aromatics were once so valued that European trade routes developed in the quest to obtain them. The lore of perfume colours history with ritual, mystery and sensual appeal. Whether expressed through ancient mythology, modern poetry, or personal experience, the scent of the natural world can capture our imaginations and cultivate our senses.
Around the turn of the century, as industry began replacing natural aromatics with petroleum-based aroma chemicals, the art of perfumery turned a dramatic corner. Initially these cheap imitations of rare and beautiful aromatics were seen for what they were. Perfume texts of the late 1800s refer to aroma chemicals as ‘dull and uninteresting¹, ‘lacking the complexity and subtle character of genuine aromatics¹, and ‘perhaps suitable for industrial products but not personal scent¹. However, the advantage of replacing a costly natural ingredient with an inexpensive chemical replica soon had suppliers marketing a different story. By the 1920¹s, synthetics were embraced as ‘more stable¹, ‘easier to work with¹ and eventually, ‘superior¹ to natural ingredients. Clever advertising and images of beautiful women convinced the public that smelling like this means looking like that. Today, chemists have over 4000 aroma chemicals to choose from when creating a perfume. Many of them have been linked to environmental sensitivities and health problems and many are banned in countries more strident than North America in the arena of public health protection.
The overwhelming presence of synthetic fragrance in our environment has had another unfortunate side effect. It has distanced many of us from our sense of smell. At the same time, of all the senses, the sense of smell influences us the most. No other sense has as much power over our emotional life and imagination as the sense of smell. To shut it out would mean not to breathe.
Most of us know that developing a more sophisticated palate or sense of taste enriches our lives. We cultivate our sense of sound and surround ourselves with music that we like to live to. Our lives are visually rich, with colors and images of our choosing. Even our tactile sense is jealously guarded and integral to our wellbeing. Wrapping our bodies in cashmere is so much more desirable and valued than wrapping it in a scratchy acrylic or sweaty polyester. But the background scent of our lives is a haphazard mixture of random olfactory accidents. Most of the products in our lives contain a synthetic fragrance. Often the only genuine aromatic experience we have is connected to food preparation.
Natural scent develops our sense of smell and expands our sensual experience. Natural scent can provide a background of positive influence in our lives. Our bodies respond to scent, relax into it, are moved to experience by it. Natural scent is both subtle and complex. It becomes personal when we wear it, changing on our skin into a scent uniquely our own. It fills our environment with its subtle grace. Never loud, never the same – complex, yet humble in its simplicity. Natural scent is a story, whispered to us from nature. We need to begin to hear it